When I Need to Clear Out the Fridge, I Make This Mumbai Street Food
To food editor Shilpa Uskokovic, when it comes to home cooking, cheap is the greatest compliment. Each month, in What a Steal, she’s sharing a highly craveable recipe—and showing us how to save some $$$ along the way.
In my house, Friday is officially Fridge Forage Day, a time to root around the fridge (and pantry) like a truffle-hunting piglet, hoping to unearth a treasure. On occasion, it’s something luxurious like a package of mortadella or pristine avocado. Other days, it’s a bruised lemon and very suspicious milk. But every time, the crisper drawer releases some survivors, defeated-looking in their loneliness—a flaccid carrot, a shriveled beet, almost-slimy herbs, broccoli stems from when I was feeling ambitious and wanted to save the world, one gnarly stub at a time.
I try to get creative with these stragglers, making pickles, frittatas, soups, or pestos. But the thing I make again and again is spicy, stewy pav bhaji—the consummate home of wilted vegetables and pantry staples.
Rooted in thrift, pav bhaji originated in the streets of Mumbai as a way to feed textile mill workers quickly and cheaply during their lunch break. Bhaji is a mixture of seasonal (and, in turn, economical) vegetables, stewed with onions and tomatoes, burbling away in the concave center of large cast-iron griddles. Pav is derived from “pao,” the Portuguese word for bread, and is reflective of its influence in the region; these golden buns sit along the edge of the griddle, toasting in a slick of almost-too-salty butter, awaiting a plate and a hungry customer.
In making pav bhaji, uncostly onions provide a base of caramelized sweetness. Cheap potatoes bring bulk and texture. From there, the floor is open to whatever veggies are overstaying their welcome in your fridge. Instead of the carrots called for in this recipe, you can make it using up beet or broccoli stems. Or add grated zucchini or daikon if you have those on hand. Just keep the quantity of vegetables roughly the same volume as the original (around 3 cups). The onions, green bell pepper, and potato are essential, but everything else is flexible.
Whichever vegetables you choose, they are destined to shine, thanks to your humble spice drawer. This recipe shares a DIY mix, but if you don’t have all of them and don’t want to stock up (we get it, spices can add up), making pav bhaji is the perfect time to embrace a packaged spice blend. Compared to stocking up on a dozen different ingredients, premade spice blends can be a smart bargain. There is no shortage of masalas for chole, sambar, rajma, biryani, and meat curries, and using these is a quite common practice in the Indian diaspora. If you can get your hands on a box of pav bhaji masala (MDH or Everest brand are my favorites), substitute 2–3 Tbsp. for the ground spices in the recipe.
A lavish amount of butter, in the stew and on the buns, takes pav bhaji from economical to extravagant, so don’t be tempted to cut back. Your foraged findings deserve that little luxury.
This iconic Mumbai dish is joyously messy, vibrantly spiced, all too easy—and did we mention remarkably cheap?